I am a rough reviewer. That is, I am usually a pretty critical reviewer of books. And, I can enjoy a book thoroughly yet still be pretty critical in my review. I had a friend recently tell me that given all the books I read every year, I have earned the right to be critical since I have the context needed to discern a good book from a great one and a bad book from a horrible one. I say this to set the stage for what has been a really tough review to write. I’ve said before that I consider it tremendously brave to write something and let others read it and open yourself up to all sorts of criticism. In the same review I also noted that reading books is kind of like eating – what I love other might hate and vice-versa. And so the things I liked and the things I think need improvement here might be just the opposite for another reader. It was a rough review for me to even conceptualize. It is with mixed emotions that I gave Masterpiece by Jillian Verne a 3 star rating on goodreads (remember folks, 3 on goodreads is a “like it” rating). Because it left me smiling and looking forward to book #2. But, in the words of the immortal Dr. Who, “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”
What am I getting at? I can totally enjoy a book and still be critical. I think movies would demonstrate this “theory” better. Think of a movie that you enjoyed to watch – one that was fun, entertaining, you might watch it often, you might own it on DVD, and you love to cuddle up with your flannel sheets and a bowl of popcorn and you just feel better, happier, when the end credits role. There are a ton of movies in my library that fit that bill. But… it’s certainly no Oscar winner. It hasn’t won any critical acclaim. It might even score poorly on rotten tomatoes. It’s a romp, it’s not trying to send a deep message about society, its not telling the true story of someone battling a great injustice at his own personal expense – it’s no Schindler’s List or King’s Speech. It’s just a fun 90 minutes that makes you smile a ton and laugh pretty often. I would analogize to Twilight (book or move I guess) but for fear of offending all the Twi-hards out there… so, instead, for me, it’s like Hudson Hawk. That’s a movie that I once heard Bruce Willis (on Letterman, I think) say he doesn’t even like to admit he was in. But I sing along when they rob the museum singing swinging on a star and I laugh when the nun does the “you must pay the rent” gag. I love to watch Minerva and Darwin in the Board room talking about world domination. But I certainly wouldn’t call it worthy of winning any writing awards or anything like that. It’s fun but if I wanted to be a movie critic I am sure I could find lots to critique.
So, does that help set the stage?
Brief summary of the plot for those who aren’t familiar. Juli, is a promising young artist. She becomes the apprentice to Nicolai, a famous and domineering artist. They fall for each other. But he is a Dom and she, a natural sub. He wants to bring her into his life and lifestyle, which includes her induction into the Order, a society of like-minded folks who are all rich and powerful. The head of the Order doesn’t like Juli, due to something in her mother’s past. When Juli gets formally introduced at the Order’s annual and famous hedonistic event, will she be accepted? There’s lots of “rough play” in the BDSM world we see here.
There is promise here. It was a very good debut. But it was a debut. There are a few things that I expect will improve with future installments and I look forward to them. And there are things that I would change, because after all, I am critical when reviewing. But, that said – I enjoyed it. I had a smile on my face while reading it and I will read it again.
The author has demonstrated an ability to not be afraid of some explicit and graphic detail. That was wonderful. All too often I read debut novels where the author is clearly holding back. They can sometimes be skittish of all sorts of things – from sex scenes to necessary plot points to character development that might give us Creepy Rob Lowe instead of Handsome Rob Lowe. That is not the case here. Is there room for refinement, sure. But no book is perfect. There was a clear plan for the characters and we are given a great introduction to a number of characters who can easily serve as the next few installments, without feeling like the characters were afterthoughts merely for the purpose of providing the fodder for the next book. Instead, they served purposes beyond just being there ready for an installment of their own. I loved that aspect. We are given some back story for many of them so that it should be easy to nurture an attachment, and thus be left clamoring for an installment dedicated to each of them. Sabin, Jared, Dorian – all have great potential and I was left wanting more from each.
A big motivator in reading from this genre is the anticipation of reading a well written juicy scene or five. And there was a good bit of juice. While I am a little used to seeing some of this a little earlier in this particular genre (versus what is more generally classified as romance), it’s not like I was waiting for long. And each scene left me enraptured in what I was reading. But, there were moments when the scenes needed a little help with the continuity. I sometimes was reading a scene, trying to picture the characters in the throws of passion and I had to stop to re-read. And I needed to re-read because I couldn’t follow how the characters ended up the way the were. It was as if there were a few frames missing from the scene of the movie – I still got the gist, but I knew something had skipped a beat and was ever so slightly off too. And while I am not squeamish when it comes to the descriptors for human anatomy, there was an interesting juxtaposition of hard core terms with very soft core terms and descriptions so that when the harder terms popped up they felt a little startling or unexpected. What I mean is that there isn’t enough balance between the two to make it more natural to read both types of descriptions together. And there were moments when I felt that I wanted more. Erotica, to me anyway, isn’t the less is more leaving room for a reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. Instead, you should be getting the gritty details in all their glory. There were moments when this too felt a little imbalanced – too much and not enough details at the same time. This, I think will improve, the more experience the author gets at writing these scenes. I will note that this book is a particular brand of erotica, one that I don’t read much of. I read books with elements or scenes of this but it isn’t often I read something dedicated solely to this type of play. You need to be ready for it. It can’t be easy to write and the author clearly didn’t let that intimidate. And that, despite what might seem like criticism here, is really a compliment. I loved that there was no bashfulness here. When it was necessary to use certain words, they were used. No pussy-footing around (pun really not intended!). I wish that was the case with more of what I read.
Clearly the author had a vision for the story and her characters. And she executed on that vision. I was not left wondering where the story was going. This is a good thing. No, a great thing, in this genre. I don’t read these books for the mystery. I read them for the, ahem, relationship between the characters. Sure, if it’s a mystery that is driving the plot forward and getting us from chapter-one to chapter-the-end great. But that’s secondary to the other elements, in my mind anyway. I don’t want to have to pretend to be Sherlock Holmes while reading this genre (although reading while sitting next to Benedict’s Sherlock would be ok! **wink, wink**). The little bit of mystery here was ok as it moved the plot in a forward direction so that there was some meaning in things, besides just the coupling activities. It was totally guessable, but since I want it to be secondary, that’s fine. The author did a splendid job of moving the characters froward, developing them, and even made Juli pretty complex (which is what made her revelations about the world she gets wrapped up in so satisfying).
And the little bit of mystery, while guessable, was still enough of a mystery to be satisfying. It wasn’t the same old story with the same old motivators or results. Don’t get me wrong, guy gets the girl. But is that really a surprise or mystery in this genre? The way that whole thing plays out was well plotted and crafted and while it didn’t get a lot of page time, it didn’t feel rushed or just thrown in. It was secondary, but it wasn’t a throw-away. It was well integrated into the story and well positioned to provide exactly the right back-ground and motivator for a number of characters. Well done!
But, I said I am pretty critical, right. So, we must move on to the bad things part of this book. Ok, so my first issue is merely a personal pet-peeve. I totally get it if other readers don’t mind this part – for me, its like fingernails on a blackboard. I don’t like it when authors write accents phonetically. Here’s my logic/problem – our Scot’s brogue is written phonetically but the other characters are French, speaking a mix of English and French (although more English and I will get to that in a minute). Why don’t Nicolai and Juli “speak” phonetically when they are speaking English? French folks speaking English usually have an accent, why don’t we get that from them? If we are to assume that really, they are speaking French and we are getting the English version (and hence, no accent), then why do we get so much en Francais, in italics – to draw attention to the French – nonetheless? Give me English (sans accent) non-phoenitically written or give me the accent! I don’t want a mix of both. And, in addition to the previous comment about the smattering of Francais, if I am going to get it, it needs to be translated or so common I don’t need it translated. There was a very inconsistent mix of what is translated versus what’s obvious versus what left me wishing my 6 years of French lessons weren’t so long ago. Is this a big deal? Absolutely not, but it is a small something that I don’t like. (Aside: I think this is an area where self-editing and services like smashwords hurts the author; a professional editor might have raised this, or at least the consistency of translation issue.)
The second thing: more. There were places where I needed more. More plot earlier on. More background on the Order. More time with the Order. More subtlety in some of the key plot points. More steamy scenes. More of how the characters fell in love. More detailed background on the characters to understand them better. More Jared. Telling me that Juli wrote a journal but not really sharing what was in it, didn’t give me enough background to identify with her and really like her. Instead, I found nit-picky character flaws to focus on. Telling me that Nicolai had a father like he had, but not really telling me what “like” means made it harder to think of him as much more than a controlling jerk. I saw a review note that fans of 50 Shades would love this book – but I don’t think it was intended to be like 50 Shades and I don’t think the parallels were intended. But there were parallels. In fact, as I thought about including my version of the synopsis in this review I found it even harder not to see parallels. And the parallels distracted from the potential of this story. I am not saying the books and/or stories are the same – but I can definitely see what seems to be a formula forming. And, add to it that this author clearly has a better grasp on the English language, grammar, and writing in general. If you are looking for a 50 Shades-like book, I would say this isn’t it because the writing of this is phenomenally better than 50 Shades. I think more of the stuff I noted above would have eliminated most of the parallels.
So where does that leave me? I am looking forward to Paradise, Jacques’ book. And I hope that the debut is the beginning of a successful career writing books that I expect (hope?) will see these little bugs fine-tuned as the series continues. I am guessing that the rough edges will be refined in Paradise and we will get smoother edges and lots more juicy center!